Lance Armstrong, Jim Thorpe, and Sports Envy

I do not follow bicycle racing, but it’s hard not to know the larger-than-life Lance Armstrong who won a record seven Tour de France titles. Not only was he the world’s greatest cyclist, but he is a living testimony to determination, hard work, and a survivor of a potentially fatal disease. In October 1996 he was diagnosed with stage-three testicular cancer with a tumor that had metastasized to his brain and lungs. His cancer treatments included brain and testicular surgery and extensive chemotherapy.

His cancer went into complete remission, and by January 1998 he was involved in serious training for racing, moving to Europe to race for the U.S. Postal team.

In 1999, he was named the ABC Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Year.

Doping allegations have dogged him for years. Armstrong has described himself as the most tested athlete in the world. Even so, the allegations continued until they became too much for him. Armstrong has decided that he would no longer fight the charges even though there has never been any physical evidence of doping.

Why all the attacks on Armstrong? It made me wonder until I read further in some of the articles about the story. This one caught my attention:

With more than $100 million in endorsement fees banked, Armstrong may be able to spend his way out of that litigation, but it’s unlikely he’ll ever recover the prestige he once enjoyed as one of the planet’s most admired athletes

And also this one:

Armstrong owns homes in Austin, Texas, and Aspen, Colorado, as well as a ranch in the Texas Hill Country.

Is it possible that the relentless attacks on Armstrong are the result of envy? Is it because he has become famous and rich and has overshadowed his competitors and the so-called guardians of the sport?

Armstrong’s story reminds me of Jim Thorpe (1888–1953). Thorpe was a Native American from Oklahoma whose athletic career blossomed and gained fame when he attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Carlisle played the top football teams of that era. In 1912 Carlisle won the national collegiate championship. Thorpe even played against President Eisenhower who played for Army, a perennial football powerhouse.

Thorpe was one of the most versatile athletes of modern sports. He won Olympic gold medals for the 1912 pentathlon and decathlon, played collegiate and professional football, as well as professional baseball and basketball. He was also quite the ballroom dancer, having won a number of contests. For a recounting of his life, see the film Jim Thorpe: All American (1951) starring Burt Lancaster.

“In a poll of sports fans conducted by ABC Sports, Thorpe was voted the Greatest Athlete of the Twentieth Century out of 15 other athletes including Muhammad Ali, Babe Ruth, Jesse Owens, Wayne Gretzky, Jack Nicklaus, and Michael Jordan.”

It was his two Olympic gold medals that reminded me of Lance Armstrong’s attack by his competitors and sports policing agencies. Thorpe’s Olympic gold medals in the 1912 Olympics were taken from him and his stellar performances stripped from the Olympic history books because he played semi-professional baseball during the summer months before the Olympics. It wasn’t until 30 years after his death that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) restored his Olympic medals . . . . 71 years too late.

When it was reported that Thorpe had been expense money ($2 per day) for playing baseball, the athletic guardians at the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) went on a relentless attack. Like Armstrong, Thorpe’s Olympic titles, medals, and awards were stripped from him because he was not an “amateur” when he competed.

The AAU was out to get Thorpe. According to the rules of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), all protests had to be made no later than 30 days from the closing ceremonies of the Games. The first newspaper reports did not appear until about six months after the Stockholm Games had concluded.

Was it because Thorpe was an Indian who showed the world that he was superior to the white man? Nicholas Leeman wrote, ‘For being guileless, for being an Indian who got above his station, Thorpe was singled out for humiliation.’”

Was it because of envy that appeals to the IOC to restore Thorpe’s medals and honors fell on deaf ears?

“Throughout the decades, any attempts at reinstatement were rebuffed by the IOC, notably by the autocratic president Avery Brundage who presided from 1952–72. ‘Ignorance is no excuse,’ he said.

“Racial prejudice was undoubtedly a factor. Snobbery was another. Brundage rigidly adhered to an amateur ethic designed to keep workers in their place which was long out of date by the time of his death in 1975.

“Revenge may have been a third. Brundage finished sixth in the pentathlon and 15th in the decathlon behind Thorpe at the 1912 Games.”1

Brundage was also known as an anti-Semite and supporter of Adolf Hitler.

Is the Lance Armstrong story déjà vu all over again, but this time with fame and fortune as the reasons for a person of accomplishment needing to be brought low?

  1. Jim Thorpe cruelly treated by authorities,” Sports Illustrated (August 8, 2004). []